libraries and trust

Perhaps it was because I was trusting the motorists as they whizzed by me and my bicycle, but on my afternoon ride I started thinking about the issue of trust in libraries. It really seems central to what we do. Here are some examples, and you all come up with more I’m sure.

In every reference transaction there is an exchange of trust. Asking questions of a reference librarian is an act of reliance. If a patron perceives a librarian as untrustworthy they’re simply not going to feel comfortable asking them questions. Would you? Good reference librarians connect with users as fellow humans and empathize with them. The most successful transactions are those in which this connection is realized and users trust that the librarian’s concern leads to accurate and useful information. Of course, this is rarely explicit and usually takes place through friendliness, attentiveness, verbal cues and body languge. I don’t think it can be faked.

“Every reader his or her book” is an exercise in trust. In this statement, librarians trust individuals to choose what is best. Ranganathan trusted library users, which was a change of pace from previous didactic ways.

The notion of trust manifests itself in the new focus we have with our presence on the web. Users trust us enough to care about, say, the bookmarks we store on, and we trust users to not leave inappropriate comments on our weblogs and wikis. This is the same type of trust that enables people to be interested in our print collections, and enables us to trust that they aren’t going to rip pages out of books. Or fill out the crossword puzzles. Or use a piece of pizza as a bookmark. Sure, bad choices are occasionally made and people misbehave but these incidents appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

This sharing of trust is an important connection and something that our users appreciate. Trust is the strong suit of successful libraries, and Libraries in general would benefit if it became part of our “brand.” More people would use libraries if our institutions were associated with comfort and trust.

Non-user-centered library policy corrodes the trust that we should be aiming to develop.
“No Drinks in the Library” equals “We don’t trust you to keep our library clean.” “You must give us your name to use our computers” equals “We think there’s a chance that you’re going to do something wrong or bad and we want to know how to find you.” The same case could me made about the fines we charge or overdue items.. Do they exist because we don’t trust our users to bring items back? Is this justified?

There are many barriers to the establishment of trust between a librarian and patron. Age, race, appearance, socioeconomic status, time of day, personality and more can affect people’s perceptions and prevent them from being comfortable around each other. However, we’re all human and we should all be in this together. Keep this in mind as you help people in the library this week. You’ll find that trusting the users of your library will improve your service and enhance your life.

14 thoughts on “libraries and trust”

  1. Trust that the patrons can come up with ideas we might not thought of implementing (Superpatron).

    This can carry over to co-workers too…

    Trust that collaborative projects can become wonderful experiments, so try one!

    Trust that all (or some?) technology isn’t like ‘HAL 9000’ from 2001: a Space Odyssey.

    Trust that the coworker you may have thought would not be an early adopter on a new tech idea just might become the best cheerleader for the project.


  2. Those are excellent points… The example of library fines though– I think you could make the case that they’re examples of encouraging trust between the library and all their patrons, as opposed to the library and some individual patron. Many libraries charge higher fines when the item in question is being held by another patron. That other patron, and all patrons, should be able to trust that they’ll be able to get their hands on any given item in a reasonable amount of time. Same goes for patrons trusting that the library will be a clean and safe place to study/work/hang out. I’m not familiar with the way public libraries keep their computer usage logs, but I’d bet that a good chunk of the reason why they make people log in is so to try and prevent the same people from hogging the computers all day when other patrons might be waiting.

    In other words, you could turn some of those “we don’t trust you to do xyz” and invert them into “other patrons trust us to xyz” and so.. these rules.

    Just extending the argument from your first four paragraphs to the sixth. :)

  3. @kelly
    Yeah, I agree that we should be open minded about our patrons and coworkers.

    @carol o

    Hogging computers is no good at all. We require people to sign in, but just ask for their zip codes. That way we know the percentage of in-town computer users, and the percentage of people from surrounding communities.

    Your notion of “other patrons trust us to xyz” is really interesting. I see what you’re saying, but I’m wondering if that line of thinking doesn’t automatically make the actions of patrons suspect. In other words, “Other patrons trust us to xyz, and you might prevent this from happening if left on your own, so we’re going to put rules in place to make you.”

    Typing this it seems like we’re discussing minutia, but such focus on Libraries’ perception and treatment of library users might make for the solid foundation of a user-focused institution.

    Thanks for the input, it helps.

  4. You’ve neglected to mention the trust that our patrons place in us when they walk up to a Circulation Desk and pass a book over the counter, a book that could be on a sensitive subject — illness, life-style changes — and put it in the hands of someone they know, and who knows them.

    The mutual tension that is often the result of that act, is an important reason why we’re moving to adopt self-check.

  5. Aaron! Wow. This is one of the most meaningful pieces I’ve read in a long time. Echoing Kelli, I pointed to your post, and extended the trust issue to the workplace.

  6. “More people would use libraries if our institutions were associated with comfort and trust.”

    Well said and easily agreed upon, but establishing trust is not quite so one-sided from my perspective. It’s a delicate tightrope and here’s why I believe so: Part of trust is the notion that libraries will have the necessary rules in place to limit abuses of the tenuous social contract that governs usage of library resources. (Oh my, that was wordy.) That is to say that part of the trust relationship is sending exactly the messages that you mention: that we will take the necessary steps to keep materials in the best possible condition, to get materials back, to make sure computer resources are evenly available, etc. We do these things to send the larger message that we are good stewards of taxpayer resources.

    So while trusting our users is an important perspective to have, it must be balanced against the trust that patrons have in us to prevent abuse – that is, to recognize that without some level of distrust, the whole system falls apart. Sure, you can see that as a very pessimistic view to take, but I hear from enough patrons to know that there is gratitude to be found in upholding the social order.

  7. I think the social order can be upheld without many rules. Extending trust helps gain compliance and cooperation, at least it does in our library, which is not a library strained by desperate user demands. In desperate communities, these ideals may be harder to reach. Still, all users must be served with respect and fairness, whether there are many or few rules. If not, we lose the trust.

  8. — “You must give us your name to use our computers” equals “We think there’s a chance that you’re going to do something wrong or bad and we want to know how to find you.” —

    Well, yeah, and the community as a whole trusts us to be able and willing to turn people in on the rare occasions when they actually do something illegal. (And us taking names likely reduces the chance that they will.) I don’t think that’s unreasonable, especially for libraries with Internet-use policies which explicitly say that using our computers to break the law may result in prosecution.

    How come you’re not suggesting that we do away with linking library cards to indentifying info? Let’s just hand out a card and activate its number for anyone who qualifies, without putting a name, address, etc., into the patron record. Let’s just trust everyone not to rip us off! Or don’t you have the *balls* to say that? (Grin. Just channeling Stephen Colbert there.)

    More seriously, re: Comments, wikis, tagging, etc. … I have yet to see (but maybe I missed it) a discussion of the 1st/14th Amendment implications for public libraries removing or editing “inappropriate” entries. Non-governmental entities don’t need to worry about that, but we can trust that a library will get sued for something like deleting tags that a KKK member adds to the catalog record for a bio of Dr. King (when we get tagging capabilities in our OPACs, that is).

  9. In addition to trust, another characteristic of sharing is expectation. Our expectations must be clear, as does our understanding of (and ability to fulfill) our users’ expectations. To slightly reframe your analogy: I trust my ability to ride my bike through traffic, and expect the cars sharing the road not to hit me.

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